Humor, Life
Comments 10

I really like trains, I always have.

Maybe I like trains because I grew up knowing that PopPop used to drive trains (I also knew he carried an ice pick during peanut deliveries to bars in Harrisburg but that didn’t have the same intrinsic appeal at first and I didn’t appreciate his genius for years). Grandma once told me he came home tired and awed because he had piloted a new kind of engine across Pennsylvania from Ohio. “Oh Myerly” he told her as he flopped across the bed, “that engine was something.”

Maybe it was the awesome train set we had in the basement.  I had my own SOO engine before I was 7. White with red trim. It gleamed as it soared, shicka shicka shicka, past our model station and waiting matchbox cars. It stopped for no one.

Maybe the liking struck c. 1977 when I rode the commuter train into Philadelphia with my dad. It was near Christmas so it was chilly and smoky exhaust and bits of flotsam blew around the train when it heaved into the station. It stank. It was loud. And once we got on, it clattered and swayed in the best way.

I just really like trains.

TrainBridgeI like to look at trains. We lived rural during my teenage years and the route to anywhere was crossed by train tracks leading to the coal-driven power plant. They interrupted the road, more or less as they pleased, and sometimes a busy person had to relax, not worry about being late, and count the train cars. I like the engine yard at Strasburg, PA. I like rusting, abandoned train cars. I like to see random bits of trains scattered about our world. Diners. Weird homesteads.

I like to ride trains. Underground or above ground, trolly car or closed car, small gauage, monorail, or full size, plastic molded commuter seats or plush spacious travel seats that sometimes change into bunks: As far as I remember I’ve tried trains in or around Paris, St Louis, D.C., Buffalo, Memphis, London, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Charlottesville, Philadelphia, NYC, Skagway, Seattle, Lisboa, the Franklin Institute, and Strasburg. I look for reasons to need a train. When I fly into a new airport I check – can I take rail into the city? Can I ride a train to the museum or conference? Does a train pass by the home of any reasonably nearby family? I know there are thousands more trains for me to try, but I have time and there’s no real rush except that some trains are being mothballed. Called obsolete by powers beyond my control.

I rode a train from Lisbon to the Algarve in my first adult jet-lag fog. I stepped from plane to ferry to train to beach in one long bleary journey. I slept on the train. For two weeks I carried 2,000 year old animal bones in my bag on the Washington DC Metro Blue Line. I had to cradle my body around the bag to keep the polite press of white collar humanity from fracturing these bits of someone else’s past. I took a train to visit a friend in Connecticut when I was 19 years old. I sat in independent comfort across from two Yale students specializing in Ancient Languages,which of course seemed completely appropriate to train travel. But even as I kid I worried that this gracious method of travel was not going to last. A friend recently told me her mom has ridden the Orient Express. I was instantly, viscerally jealous.

EngineThe WideEyedSpouse and I sat patiently waiting for our turn at the order box of the Delaware Ave Timmy Horton’s last Saturday afternoon (large triple triple, medium double double, and a 10 box of TimBits to sustain us after grocery errands). I heard deep thrumming thumps and rolled down my window to sniff – yep, diesel. Train nectar. A train hove into sight, glorious and large, beautiful red engines powering down next to an inglorious strip mall. Its beauty separated from us by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire as if it were something dangerous or shameful. I could see the engineer fussing with clipboards and levers inside the tiny windows. I waved. Because I really like trains.


  1. Dwain says

    Another great story WEF. My dad, uncle Charlie to you, was a trainman and started in the “steam days” and railroaded for 44 years. When the steam engines were replaced with diesel locomotives, PopPop, my uncle Jim, related that innovation to Aunt Myerly after he returned from a run with the new engine I’ll bet. Here’s a bit of minutia for you. Those new diesel engines are actually 12 cylinder, 2 stroke, high horsepower diesel engines that operate four electric motors that put the power to the wheels. So electricity is really what powers the train. I only know this because my best friend Dean, the one who is bringing my truck in February, is an engineer with the BNSF and hauls 130 coal cars from Wyoming twice a week. One other minute detail, I never knew a trainman, his friends, sons and uncles who didn’t like bars!

    • Dwain! I didn’t realize Uncle Charlie was also a trainman. Even better. And tell your friend that the world appreciates the glory of his trains!

  2. momtowideeyedspouse says

    Awww! What a nostalgic, heartwarming, story for all to enjoy! You’ve outdone yourself this time WEF.

  3. In my experience, passenger trains cover a broad spectrum, from daily, mind numbing, boring commutes to exciting new adventures. The 7:50 out of Glenside Station was as far removed from the long-gone Royal Blue as it was possible to be. As a young adult I took the daily commute into Philadelphia’s old Reading Terminal, probably riding in some of the cars that my grandfather rode in. At least that’s how it seemed. Same grind, same people doing the same crossword puzzles, same pushy people who had to be first on and first off the car, same scenery, every single day, stretching forever into the future.. Trapped. No escape. Ever.

    But the Royal Blue ! Imagine a 10 year old kid being taken by his parents to Wayne Junction in Philadelphia on a balmy summer afternoon, left to ride alone, destination Union Station in Washington DC, there to be met by welcoming relatives. High adventure, mildly scary but wonderful too. And the train’s interior: pure quiet, smooth AIR-CONDITIONED luxury, a hushed environment, friendly porters and conductors. A stack of comics and Mad Magazines, maybe a science fiction book, for the trip. Snacks. A dining car where glasses and silverware jingled with the train’s movement, where one could order just like an adult. And speed ! Scenery flashing by soundlessly at far higher speeds than we ever experienced in the early 1950’s. That was not a train ride, that was a ride on the Royal Blue. Too bad – – it’s one of those things that are no more.

    Well, thanks for bringing back the memory !

    And the ice pick – – as with other James C. Davis stories, it needs to be told over a beer.

    • Funny – your miserable commuter rail car was my kid magic. Maybe you should have taken me on better trains as a kid so I had higher standards. I am starting to feel like I am a member of a train-focused family – no wonder I like them so much.

  4. It’s funny – – those same boring commuter cars became magical on a Saturday morning with kids along, especially going to a Christmas show or the Franklin Institute. I should have said every single weekday !

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